Three Simple Principles for Creative Leadership / by Gavin Lau

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. — John Quincy Adams

This quote has inspired me throughout my career. As a young man, and as with most new leaders, I eagerly searched for leadership advice. The elegance, simplicity, and directness of this quote served as a beacon as I journeyed in a leadership role. 
Over the years, I’ve been privileged to build and be part of various talented teams. Through trial and error, I’ve collected a handful of insights and organically formed a simple framework comprised of three core principles: Inspire, Direct, and Support. As a leader, ask yourself three questions: Does the team feel inspired? Does the team have clarity on direction? Does the team have enough support?

Yes, there are hundreds of books and articles discussing leadership methodologies. Why write another blog post? The answer is simple; there isn’t one perfect approach to leading; however, I do believe that there is a core framework. Each team has its own personality, rhythm, and nuances. When leading creative professionals — designers, engineers, writers, or product managers — there is a heightened sense of independence, ingenuity and uniqueness. 
Please understand that this framework serves as a guideline and overarching plan that provides the flexibility and latitude within it to tailor to the unique needs and personality of your team. With this said, I can attest that this framework has helped deliver quite a few happy and productive teams along the way.



The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. — Albert Einstein

Some assume that creativity is solely the application of colors, typography, and layout. Thus, people expect that inspiration comes from aesthetic sources. As a designer that values aesthetics, I find that assumption to be a bit narrow. As humans, we often fail to recognize that our genius is revealed when we imagine a fresh approach or a novel way to solve a dilemma. Creative design, in its purest form, is the search for an elegant solution to a problem. Yes, visual design is essential, and we all love beautiful things. However, above all else, a usable foundation is critical for a solution to satisfy user needs.
Opportunities to craft astounding experiences and products, drive imaginative people. Few things motivate more than an inspiring project. It is vital that the team feels a purpose and feels able to contribute something that positively impacts people. As a leader, your role is to nurture a culture that challenges the status-quo and leads to true inspiration. Within the framework the first principle — Inspire — I have found some of the following methodologies to be successful.

Look beyond the horizon
Set aside time, as a group, to explore concepts or discoveries outside of your product or market. Rally the team to be willing to research and reinvent. Below are a few steps to start a session.

  1. Ask each person to present an example of a product or experience that excites them.
  2. Provide a casual platform for the team discuss and describe what moves them about the example.
  3. Ask HMW (How might we…) questions such as: How might we benefit our clients with X? How might we leverage X to increase X?
  4. Synthesize thoughts and ideas into themes.
  5. Sketch potential solution vignettes

This simple exercise is an enjoyable way to investigate innovations and form a sense of “the art of the possible.” It opens imaginations and germinates cross-pollination opportunities for existing or new products. 

Expand their network
Encourage members of the team to follow industry luminaries or organizations on Twitter, Medium, LinkedIn, Facebook or other sources. A few people I emulate are: Tim Brown, Tony Hsieh, Des Trayner, Julie Zhuo, Kevin Rose and dozens more.

Encourage them to contribute to open source projects on Github; even if they’re not comfortable with coding. Many open source projects are looking for help beyond coding in visual design, testing, and writing.

Ask the team to join local meetups or online groups to connect with peers or industry leaders. By broadening one’s network, the team is exposed to diverse viewpoints, new ideas, and new techniques, thus strengthening the team.

Get out of the building
It’s easy to become complacent sitting behind our oversized screens. Too often, our view narrows and we lose sight of our customers’ needs. Energize and enlighten the team by organizing “in the wild” moments of discovery through exploration workshops, on-site client visits, sales calls, or industry conferences. These interactions help increase needs-awareness and empathy for your users, and fosters creative problem-solving. 

Experiment and play
Secure “playtime” for your team to examine new ideas or emerging technologies. Many impactful inventions have blossomed from a subtle sketch or emerging technology experiment. If a defined focus is necessary, work as a team to formulate a list of potential areas to investigate. It goes without saying, experimentation is the lifeblood of innovation. Yielding time for learning endeavors will serve to inspire and prevent the development of an ordinary and uninspired team. 

Strengthen their voice
Writing is an excellent means to tune our communication style and ignite creativity. Authoring a view actually facilitates and grows our capacity to form thoughts and express a story. 
Make the starting step effortless; ask them to write a blog post. The subject doesn’t need to be about business; just as long as the process of writing about the topic builds confidence. As a showcase:

Heather Boyer, a software architect on the team, manages a very successful blog on crocheting, photography, and other creative endeavors.

Danelle Bailey, a senior designer on the team, serves a popular blog on design, branding, lettering, and other topics.

Jen Aldrich, a designer and researcher on the team, delivers her design insights on her influential blog.
As blogging platform, I highly recommend Medium. It provides a low barrier to entry, a beautiful user interface, and a captive audience. Also, Hemingwayfor editing and Grammarly for spelling and grammar checks. 

Showcase your team
Regularly highlight the team’s work within the group and throughout the organization. If it’s not secret, share it with the world on Twitter, DribbbleBehanceProductHuntMedium and other places. An appreciation for accomplishments goes a long way towards building confidence and fostering an inspired and motivated culture!

Place inspiration everywhere
Post compelling sketches, screenshots, diagrams, user photos and artwork throughout the workspace on pinboards and office walls. Include vignettes from the team and thoughtfully include inspirational examples from others. Ensuring that these inspirational elements are shared in a more permanent location is critical. Although inspiration can be found through visits to a website or an app, these sources provide a brief moment of impact and quickly fade when moving to the next browser tab or app. Placing your artifacts of inspiration in more analog and permanent locations helps to keep them more visible and in the forefront.



It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. — Steve Jobs

Leading a creative team isn’t a top-down effort, but a participatory one. Imaginative professionals are naturally inquisitive, thus work best in open and collaborative atmospheres. Be willing to roll up your sleeves as a leadership approach. Adopt a guiding approach as the standard method, as opposed to a forceful approach. Some of the successful methods that I have used within the framework of this core principle are described below.

Express a point of view
Illustrate the mission and purpose of the team. Articulate what behavior is acceptable and unwelcome. Make sure that you are explicit and clear, and above all, practice what you preach.

Define the target
Involve the team in the process of identifying areas for improvement and potential goals. This approach will encourage ownership and build a deeper understanding, along with fostering the concept of a team. Work with the team to craft goals and measurements. Ensure that they are always visible and at the top of their minds. Improve the accessibility by making them visible outside a spreadsheet or presentation in the cloud. Place current metrics throughout the workspace. The concept of ownership — owning their goals and results — is driven by this approach, along with the understanding of where they are in the process.

Be realistic
Frequent failure without success can be dangerous for team confidence. While setting stretch goals is healthy; ensure they’re achievable. Be clear what is considered success. Only track and measure what matters, invest the time to focus on impactful metrics. Lots of metrics and slides may appear impressive. However, they can quickly become a burden and distract the team. 

Embrace change
Seldom does a project follow a straight line from A to B, rather, a typical project’s path leads through loops and zigzags — and this is not always a bad thing. Projects, no matter preparedness, can be misdirected by unforeseen obstacles, budgetary adjustments, distracting outside priorities, and the list goes on. As a leader, expect and embrace these bumps in the road. Understand that what may be a challenge, obstacle, or constraint, may actually be an opportunity to make an incredibly beneficial adjustment. If you encounter changes, confidently guide the team through the new challenge. Discuss alternatives and paths to an outcome. After considering all options, state the current plan and move forward. 

Accept negativity
Nothing can damage team morale or inventiveness more than complaining. Let’s be honest, we all do it; it’s human nature. However, evading negativity usually causes more harm. Rather than fearing negativity, accept it as a necessary evil. Empower the team to transparently vent concerns and frustrations. If the opportunity arises, steer the energy towards designing a potential remedy.

Ask and listen
You’re human; you’re not going to know all the answers. If you have the right team around you, they’re going to be smarter than you in core areas. Trust your team; ask for their advice; use them as a sounding board. Continually seek their insights on vision, improvements, and goals. 

Be honest
Be transparent and sincere; no one likes to be bullshitted. 

Communicate efficiently and often
This doesn’t mean filling up a schedule with meetings or drafting more verbose emails. Rather, consider the type of message and audience and communicate through the best channel.
Be asynchronous and limit meetings by communicating with tools such as Slack and Trello. If you need to meet, bring an agenda and only spend the time necessary. Lean towards giving the team their time back. Only invite people with relative input and asynchronously communicate decisions or updates to others. Reserve the team’s valuable time for design reviews, social rituals or rich collaboration sessions; avoid meeting simply because it’s on the schedule. 

Just enough process
I am a firm believer that elements of a process should add value (reducing risk or increasing efficiencies) and should be balanced with the burdens it places on the organization. Be ruthless about removing steps that add little value. At the end of the day, the value we provide users and business stakeholders determines our prosperity.



By putting the employee first, the customer effectively comes first by default, and in the end, the shareholder comes first by default as well. — Richard Branson

In my mind, a crucial role that a leader plays is to ensure that the team has the elements it needs to be successful. Achieving great products and engaged clients requires an environment for people to learn, collaborate and feel comfortable. I have always envisioned that a portion of my job was to remove obstacles that hindered my team.

Set the stage
A comfortable setting cultivates imagination. I’m not talking about buying some beanbags, foosball table or cheap desks from IKEA. First, focus on the essentials and thoughtfully blend elements such as wall color, artwork, acoustics, ergonomics, and lighting. Something that “looks cool” becomes useless when: lighting is harsh, a chair is painful, or the foosball table breaks concentration. 
Breakout sessions should be organic and instant, though can interrupt the flow for others. Construct accessible rooms around the workspace for those moments of serendipity. 

Capture the flow
Flow is exceptional; it only lasts for a few hours, but its contribution is quite measurable. Make sure the atmosphere allows flow and moments of invention. Being strongly tied to a typical 9–5 work day, or adding more hours, rarely increases creative contributions; however, a few hours a day under the right conditions can be much more productive. 

Access to the right tools
Tools don’t build incredible experiences, although having the right tool makes people more productive and happier. Everyone has their workflow and preferences. Avoid prescribing a tool, rather, illustrate its value and guide them. 
In the technology industry, it is crucial that the team is equipped and comfortable with the latest technology and methods. Conferences & training are essential to learning about what trends or technologies are emerging or available. Yes, there is the internet — however, conferences can yield a greater return through early access and opportunity to meet or hear the vision from the industry leaders. Help each team member form a personal development plan.

Buffer from bureaucracy and politics
Nothing can damage morale quicker than constant change or lack of vision, or a constant barrage of distractions, such as unnecessary meetings. A leader should work to translate vision, negotiate on a scope, and eliminate unnecessary distractions. Providing air cover, allows the team to remain focused on the task at hand. In short, a leader filters extraneous noise and removes obstacles that appear, allowing the team to stay focused on what they do best.

Make the connections
At a big or small organization, it is usually difficult for the team to distinguish essential team players. It can also be intimidating for team members. When a new project begins, or a new member comes aboard, make an effort introduce them to the key players. Communicate their role and highlight their strengths. Though subtle, the interaction will build confidence and foster collaboration and the concept of the larger team. 

Make people more awesome
Think of yourself as a great coach. I’ve had a few outstanding mentors throughout my career. They coached and mentored me, enabling me to reach prosperity for myself and others. Paying this forward is core to my leadership approach. Giving people the right coaching serves to elevate them, helps to understand their unique needs, strengths, and weaknesses, and builds a stronger team. Invest time in one-on-one meetings to listen to challenges, offer advice and help them prosper. 

We’re all in this together
Understand that people have personal lives and stresses outside of work. Be empathic to this when seeing frustration or dimming engagement. Privately, take a moment to listen and understand. Provide people with support and flexibility during difficult times — the investment is paid back tenfold in commitment and loyalty, and future returns.

Absorb blame, deflect compliments
Applying this concept can be challenging for new leaders. In the past, you were rewarded for your contributions, and being noticed helped you to recognize your value and build confidence. But times have changed. As a leader, it is important that you think beyond yourself as an individual and concentrate on making the team successful. When someone makes a mistake, a leader absorbs the blame (remember the old concept: “the buck stops here?”) and then use the mistake as a learning and growth opportunity for the team member. Work with them privately on improving. If you receive compliments, deflect them and highlight the team members who achieved the accomplishment, providing them with those valued moments in the spotlight.


Inspire your team to dream the unimaginable. Direct with purpose, participation, and confidence. Support them with the environment, “air cover,” and ingredients for them to realize success.

Remember, as a leader, the value you bring to your organization is your capacity and talent to develop and empower your team to achieve the unimaginable!